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George Orwell 
Reflections on Gandhi 


Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but 
the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all 
cases. In Gandhi's case the questions on feels inclined to ask are: to what 
extent was Gandhi moved by vanity — by the consciousness of himself as a 
humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by 
sheer spiritual power — and to what extent did he compromise his own 
principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from 
coercion and fraud? To give a definite answer one would have to study 
Gandhi's acts and writings in immense detail, for his whole life was a sort of 
pilgrimage in which every act was significant. But this partial autobiography, 
which ends in the nineteen-twenties, is strong evidence in his favor, all the 
more because it covers what he would have called the unregenerate part of his 
life and reminds one that inside the saint, or near-saint, there was a very 
shrewd, able person who could, if he had chosen, have been a brilliant success 
as a lawyer, an administrator or perhaps even a businessman. 

At about the time when the autobiography first appeared I remember 
reading its opening chapters in the ill-printed pages of some Indian 
newspaper. They made a good impression on me, which Gandhi himself at 
that time did not. The things that one associated with him — home-spun cloth, 
“soul forces” and vegetarianism — were unappealing, and his medievalist 
program was obviously not viable in a backward, starving, over-populated 
country. It was also apparent that the British were making use of him, or 
thought they were making use of him. Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he 
was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent 
violence — which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any 
effective action whatever — he could be regarded as “our man”. In private this 
was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was 
similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him 
to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have 
taken their money away. How reliable such calculations are in the long run is 
doubtful; as Gandhi himself says, “in the end deceivers deceive only 
themselves”; but at any rate the gentleness with which he was nearly always 
handled was due partly to the feeling that he was useful. The British 
Conservatives only became really angry with him when, as in 1942, he was in 
effect turning his non-violence against a different conqueror. 


But I could see even then that the British officials who spoke of him with 
a mixture of amusement and disapproval also genuinely liked and admired 
him, after a fashion. Nobody ever suggested that he was corrupt, or ambitious 
in any vulgar way, or that anything he did was actuated by fear or malice. In 
judging a man like Gandhi one seems instinctively to apply high standards, so 
that some of his virtues have passed almost unnoticed. For instance, it is clear 
even from the autobiography that his natural physical courage was quite 
outstanding: the manner of his death was a later illustration of this, for a 
public man who attached any value to his own skin would have been more 
adequately guarded. Again, he seems to have been quite free from that 
maniacal suspiciousness which, as E. M. Forster rightly says in A Passage to 
India, is the besetting Indian vice, as hypocrisy is the British vice. Although no 
doubt he was shrewd enough in detecting dishonesty, he seems wherever 
possible to have believed that other people were acting in good faith and had a 
better nature through which they could be approached. And though he came 
of a poor middle-class family, started life rather unfavorably, and was 
probably of unimpressive physical appearance, he was not afflicted by envy or 
by the feeling of inferiority. Color feeling when he first met it in its worst form 
in South Africa, seems rather to have astonished him. Even when he was 
fighting what was in effect a color war, he did not think of people in terms of 
race or status. The governor of a province, a cotton millionaire, a half-starved 
Dravidian coolie, a British private soldier were all equally human beings, to be 
approached in much the same way. It is noticeable that even in the worst 
possible circumstances, as in South Africa when he was making himself 
unpopular as the champion of the Indian community, he did not lack 
European friends. 

Written in short lengths for newspaper serialization, the autobiography is 
not a literary masterpiece, but it is the more impressive because of the 
commonplaceness of much of its material. It is well to be reminded that 
Gandhi started out with the normal ambitions of a young Indian student and 
only adopted his extremist opinions by degrees and, in some cases, rather 
unwillingly. There was a time, it is interesting to learn, when he wore a top 
hat, took dancing lessons, studied French and Latin, went up the Eiffel Tower 
and even tried to learn the violin — all this was the idea of assimilating 
European civilization as throughly as possible. He was not one of those saints 
who are marked out by their phenomenal piety from childhood onwards, nor 
one of the other kind who forsake the world after sensational debaucheries. He 
makes full confession of the misdeeds of his youth, but in fact there is not 
much to confess. As a frontispiece to the book there is a photograph of 
Gandhi's possessions at the time of his death. The whole outfit could be 
purchased for about 5 pounds***, and Gandhi's sins, at least his fleshly sins, 



would make the same sort of appearance if placed all in one heap. A few 
cigarettes, a few mouthfuls of meat, a few annas pilfered in childhood from the 
maidservant, two visits to a brothel (on each occasion he got away without 
“doing anything”), one narrowly escaped lapse with his landlady in Plymouth, 
one outburst of temper — that is about the whole collection. Almost from 
childhood onwards he had a deep earnestness, an attitude ethical rather than 
religious, but, until he was about thirty, no very definite sense of direction. His 
first entry into anything describable as public life was made by way of 
vegetarianism. Underneath his less ordinary qualities one feels all the time the 
solid middle-class businessmen who were his ancestors. One feels that even 
after he had abandoned personal ambition he must have been a resourceful, 
energetic lawyer and a hard-headed political organizer, careful in keeping 
down expenses, an adroit handler of committees and an indefatigable chaser 
of subscriptions. His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there 
was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad, and I 
believe that even Gandhi's worst enemies would admit that he was an 
interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive . 
Whether he was also a lovable man, and whether his teachings can have much 
for those who do not accept the religious beliefs on which they are founded, I 
have never felt fully certain. 

Of late years it has been the fashion to talk about Gandhi as though he 
were not only sympathetic to the Western Left-wing movement, but were 
integrally part of it. Anarchists and pacifists, in particular, have claimed him 
for their own, noticing only that he was opposed to centralism and State 
violence and ignoring the other-worldly, anti-humanist tendency of his 
doctrines. But one should, I think, realize that Gandhi's teachings cannot be 
squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job 
is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They 
make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid 
objects is an illusion to be escaped from. It is worth considering the disciplines 
which Gandhi imposed on himself and which — though he might not insist on 
every one of his followers observing every detail — he considered 
indispensable if one wanted to serve either God or humanity. First of all, no 
meat-eating, and if possible no animal food in any form. (Gandhi himself, for 
the sake of his health, had to compromise on milk, but seems to have felt this 
to be a backsliding.) No alcohol or tobacco, and no spices or condiments even 
of a vegetable kind, since food should be taken not for its own sake but solely 
in order to preserve one's strength. Secondly, if possible, no sexual 
intercourse. If sexual intercourse must happen, then it should be for the sole 
purpose of begetting children and presumably at long intervals. Gandhi 
himself, in his middle thirties, took the vow of brahmacharya, which means 



not only complete chastity but the elimination of sexual desire. This condition, 
it seems, is difficult to attain without a special diet and frequent fasting. One 
of the dangers of milk-drinking is that it is apt to arouse sexual desire. And 
finally — this is the cardinal point — for the seeker after goodness there must 
be no close friendships and no exclusive loves whatever. 

Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because “friends react on 
one another” and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. 
This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love 
humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to any individual 
person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and 
the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, 
love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. 
The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an 
inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that 
on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than 
administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the 
threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi — with, one 
gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction — always gave 
the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if 
the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal 
food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to what 
we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken 
broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — 
most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being 
human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to 
commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the 
point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared 
in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of 
fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, 
and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing 
that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one 
should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily 
assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of 
earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: 
in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful 
whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is 
probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much 
temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological 
roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is 
a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, 
sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue 



whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that 
they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all 
“radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme 
Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man. 

However, Gandhi's pacifism can be separated to some extent from his 
other teachings. Its motive was religious, but he claimed also for it that it was 
a definitive technique, a method, capable of producing desired political 
results. Gandhi's attitude was not that of most Western pacifists. Satyagraha, 
first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of non-violent warfare, a way of 
defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing 
hatred. It entailed such things as civil disobedience, strikes, lying down in 
front of railway trains, enduring police charges without running away and 
without hitting back, and the like. Gandhi objected to “passive resistance” as a 
translation of Satyagraha: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means “firmness in 
the truth”. In his early days Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer on the British 
side in the Boer War, and he was prepared to do the same again in the war of 
1914-18. Even after he had completely abjured violence he was honest enough 
to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides. He did not — indeed, 
since his whole political life centred round a struggle for national 
independence, he could not — take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending 
that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference 
who wins. Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding 
awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist 
had a clear obligation to answer was: “What about the Jews? Are you prepared 
to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without 
resorting to war?” I must say that I have never heard, from any Western 
pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of 
evasions, usually of the “you're another” type. But it so happens that Gandhi 
was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on 
record in Mr. Louis Fischer's Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, 
Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, 
which “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's 
violence.” After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, 
and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this 
attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was 
merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be 
prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non- 
violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it 
might cost several million deaths. 



At the same time there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was 
born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw 
everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The 
important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly 
as that he was always able to command publicity. As can be seen from the 
phrase quoted above, he believed in “arousing the world”, which is only 
possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to 
see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of 
the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. 
Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to 
appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to 
make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at 
this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? The Russian masses 
could only practise civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all 
of them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukraine 
famine, it would make no difference. But let it be granted that non-violent 
resistance can be effective against one's own government, or against an 
occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practise internationally? 
Gandhi's various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he 
felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being 
pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served 
Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or 
less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be 
seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are 
dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler 
sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the 
standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole 
nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a 
friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics? 

These and kindred questions need discussion, and need it urgently, in the 
few years left to us before somebody presses the button and the rockets begin 
to fly. It seems doubtful whether civilization can stand another major war, and 
it is at least thinkable that the way out lies through non-violence. It is Gandhi's 
virtue that he would have been ready to give honest consideration to the kind 
of question that I have raised above; and, indeed, he probably did discuss 
most of these questions somewhere or other in his innumerable newspaper 
articles. One feels of him that there was much he did not understand, but not 
that there was anything that he was frightened of saying or thinking. I have 
never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a 
political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a 
failure. It is curious that when he was assassinated, many of his warmest 



admirers exclaimed sorrowfully that he had lived just long enough to see his 
life work in ruins, because India was engaged in a civil war which had always 
been foreseen as one of the byproducts of the transfer of power. But it was not 
in trying to smooth down Hindu-Moslem rivalry that Gandhi had spent his 
life. His main political objective, the peaceful ending of British rule, had after 
all been attained. As usual the relevant facts cut across one another. On the 
other hand, the British did get out of India without fighting, and event which 
very few observers indeed would have predicted until about a year before it 
happened. On the other hand, this was done by a Labour government, and it is 
certain that a Conservative government, especially a government headed by 
Churchill, would have acted differently. But if, by 1945, there had grown up in 
Britain a large body of opinion sympathetic to Indian independence, how far 
was this due to Gandhi's personal influence? And if, as may happen, India and 
Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly relationship, will this be 
partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his struggle obstinately and without 
hatred, disinfected the political air? That one even thinks of asking such 
questions indicates his stature. One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic 
distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf 
(he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject 
sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti- 
human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared 
with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has 
managed to leave behind! 

1949 


THE END